Sunday, 6 July 2008

Misogyny in Ancient Rome a.k.a. The plight of being a clever woman in Rome




A Roman woman was expected to be educated just enough in order to understand her husband's opinions and work.  Anything more than this was frowned upon and considered off-putting and  therefore an intelligent woman would have to be particularly careful not to exhibit this (in fact she would have to go to great pains to mask her cleverness) as this might show her as being more clever and / or educated than the men around her which was definitely not on for Roman men.  (Any of this sound familiar?  Hm.  It seems some things never change!  Anyway, getting back to the Romans....)  
The Roman poet Juvenal even went so far as to write a caustic attack on women, thus revealing to us the precise forms of behaviors which vexed Roman men.  For instance, the men would be greatly embarrassed by and indeed dislike women who were more learned or clever than they were.  Juvenal writes the below particularly misogynist foul passage, which openly conveys the fierce contempt and loathing with which intelligent women were met:

'Really annoying is the woman who, as soon as she takes her place on the dining couch, praises Virgil [Rome's greatest epic poet] excuses Dido's suicide, compares and ranks in critical order the various poets and weighs Virgil and Homer [the greatest Greek epic poet] on a pair of scales.  Grammar teachers surrender, professors of rhetoric are defeated, the entire group of guests is silent; neither a lawyer nor an auctioneer nor even another woman will get a word in.  So loud and shrill are her words that you might think pots were being banged together and bells were being rung...Like a philosopher she defines ethics.  If she wants to appear so learned and eloquent, she should shorten her tunic to mid-calf! [Juvenal is here emphasizing that this is male behavior by suggesting that this woman dress as a man - his suggestion is clearly demeaning and derogatory and not meant to be taken literally, but rather as a way of implying there is something unnatural and unwomanly in such behavior].  Don't marry a woman who speaks like an orator or knows every history book.  There should be some things in books which she doesn't understand.  I hate a woman who reads and re-reads Palaemon's treatise on grammar, who always obeys all the laws and rules of correct speech, who quotes verses I've never even heard of, moldy old stuff that a man shouldn't worry about anyway.  Let her correct the grammar of her stupid girlfriend!  A husband should be allowed an occasional "I ain't"! ' [Juvenal, Satires 6.434-456]

In short, the average Roman male liked his woman to be pretty and ignorant (hopefully even more ignorant than himself!).

Today we might recognize this in the attitude of successful men who wish to surround themselves with and or marry women whose behavior and level of intelligence Juvenal would very much approve of.  The so-called trophy girlfriends and wives, who perhaps (one hopes!) are not so ignorant as people may think but have cottoned-on to this expectation certain men have of them, thus adapting their outward behavior and attitude accordingly to please their self-satisfied male partners.

2 comments:

Hrimpurstala said...

A very interesting passage, indeed. Clearly, powerful men who win brides by wealth instead of wit fear to be upstaged in many societies.

It would be interesting to compare this with the role of the courtesans who were groomed to provide companionship rather than heirs. I know that in Ancient China, Greece and Babylon courtesans were expected to be well educated (suggesting these societies an alternative concept of the ideal female).

Alan Beck said...

Juvenal was clearly Juvenile. After the Romans (a.d), came the Christian fathers, who either disliked or were scared of women. Thus we have the misogynist nonsense about Eve, the first Woman, being responsible for the Fall, and evil in the world. All this is related to Male fear of ultimate fempower: bearing and delivering New Life. Scary! We fellas cant do it./ Male, New Zealand.